Speechwriting and Messaging: Learning from Sarah Hurwitz

One of the highlights of my recent attendance at the ComNet17 conference in Miami Beach, Florida, was the opening keynote session. Michelle Obama’s chief speech writer, Sarah Hurwitz was interviewed by Melanie Newman, the Chief Public Engagement and Communications Strategist for NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

I loved Sarah’s three tips for good speechwriting:

1)    Talk like a person – who really uses words like catalyze, leverage, equity and transformational change when talking to your friend, husband, or mom – even if you are talking about work.

2)    Say something true – think about the deepest truth, the one main idea you are trying to communicate, and own it. Start there, and don’t worry about sounding powerful or persuasive. If you focus on that truth, it will connect with your audience, because they will believe you.

3)    Show don’t tell – use images, and examples, not adjectives. Focus on painting pictures for people to envision and imagine, and steer away from general statements.

What was fantastic about listening to Sarah, was she followed her own advice, and brought each of her points to life, using examples from many of the speeches she wrote with the First Lady, talking to us as if we were chatting over a drink. She cited her two biggest learnings from working with Mrs. Obama as:

  • Using powerful personal stories to connect with audiences, and
  • Focusing on values, and not spouting policy

She emphasized the importance of clearly defining the value of what you stand for, the ‘why’ behind what you are doing and then using policy and arguments to support that value and the ‘why’.

These learnings and tips resonated with me, because they truly align with the approach we apply to messaging for our clients.  When we develop message boxes to convince parents to get their tween children vaccinated for HPV, or to encourage communities to take action together to protect themselves from Zika, we are most impactful when we follow these same tenants.  HPV Vaccine is Cancer Prevention; Together Against Zika. Each of these brands and taglines capture the core values at the heart of our communications, allowing us to then deliver additional content as supporting messages.

Our most impactful messages are simple and evoke emotion. And our most powerful execution of these feature real stories from the actual audiences we are trying to engage. Sarah’s remarks were a helpful and appreciated reminder of how we can hold ourselves to a high bar as we develop our messages and content on behalf of our clients.

Trish Taylor, PhD
Executive Vice President

Image source: The James Irvine Foundation